Beyond “Without the Shedding of Blood …” Brad Jersak

“Without the Shedding of Blood …”
I must say, I am thoroughly enjoying Christian theology in the budding
era of a post-retributive Gospel.
With the Western rediscovery of the Beautiful News, I’m feeling—dare I say it—positively
born again! I am in awe and worship of the Father of Love, the cruciform God enfleshed in Jesus of
Nazareth. The symbol of the ‘old rugged cross’ has once again come to
represent, for me, God’s essential nature: namely, his self-giving, radically
forgiving, co-suffering love. And that’s good news for everyone! On the cross,
in the face of human cruelty and bloodlust, God-in-Christ revealed his bottom
line character: a mercy that endures forever—the
loving-kindness that is everlasting.
We discover that ‘the blood of Jesus’—i.e. a metonym for God’s self-offering, sacrificial
love—can wash anything. Anything. Anyone.
Still, there will be holdouts who believe real justice requires retribution,
vengeance and satisfaction of wrath. It’s okay. Many of us did … for nearly
five hundred years. Happily, I can say it’s a passé ‘thing’ and we are starting to get over it. Hang in there! The shelf-life of the vengeful punisher is coming due and
should pass away in not too many generations.
Admittedly, that stubborn old retributive system is also rather
dangerous. I write this during a weekend when a famous Christian politician
declared to the NRA that if she were “in charge,” she’d let terrorists know
that “waterboarding is
how we baptize terrorists.”
have mercy! Such a departure from the Jesus Way! But don’t hate her for her
moment of sacrilege; it is what it is and didn’t come from nowhere. Maybe you’d
say it too in the right context for a sufficient honorarium … on the Colbert Report perhaps? We all have our
x-amount pieces of silver … this is why Jesus died even for Judas.
Moreover, such betrayals are not merely founded on a secular
Constitution; they have rich backstories in Christian theologies of
retribution. If, in our theology, God needs
to use torture to bring about freedom, why should we be surprised when we
become like the One we worship? Just a week or two ago, a radio preacher again made
it very clear that if Easter means anything, it “begins with Christ dying
to satisfy the wrath of God.”
Some theologians I respect to the point of a borderline man-crush (with
apologies to New Testament Wright) repeatedly insist that the Gospel of an angry God who can
only be assuaged through a violent sacrifice is just a caricature — that no one
really believes that or preaches it seriously. If only it were true. Sad to say, the
caricature defense is an unsubstantiated cliché exposed easily enough by the
trick question, “Then how does atonement work?” 

I know for a fact that appeasement theology persists and permeates
much of Evangelical theology—broadly, popularly. I know this because I find the
supposed caricature in my undergrad and MA theology course files. I find the
analogy of a volcano-god appeased by virgin sacrifices beside the word
‘propitiation’ in my MDiv lecture notes and textbooks. I find pagan forms of
appeasement in the margins and footnotes of my own duct-taped Ryrie Study
Bible, Masters thesis and my own sermon manuscripts … things I personally, faithfully parroted. And by the way, is it hyper-Calvinism if Calvin himself taught
it? He did. Read him.
For example, should we dismiss R.C. Sproul’s opinion a mere
caricature? Just eleven days ago, he explained clearly,
Christ did His work on the
cross to placate the wrath of God. This idea of placating the wrath of God has
done little to placate the wrath of modern theologians. In fact, they become
very wrathful about the whole idea of placating God’s wrath. They think it is
beneath the dignity of God to have to be
placated, that we should have to do something to soothe Him or appease Him. We
need to be very careful in how we understand the wrath of God, but let me
remind you that the concept of placating the wrath of God has to do here not
with a peripheral, tangential point of theology, but with the essence
of salvation.[1]
Or as blogger Tim Challies put it so clearly in one of his posts,
Sin demands justice, justice demands punishment, and punishment is
made visible in wrath
. A holy God is a just God,
a God who judges right from wrong. When he judges something to be wrong he must punish it and the punishment is
expressed in wrath.

God’s wrath is a holy wrath that is expressed against sin, which
is to say, against sinners. That white-hot hatred of sin will be expressed
against those who have defied God. Because the sinner has sinned consciously,
he must face this punishment consciously. What is the right length of
punishment for a crime of this magnitude? A month of facing God’s wrath? A
year? Twenty years? Because of the eternal distance between God and the human
sinner, he has committed an infinite, eternal offense and must face this
punishment eternally. For God to come up with a sentence less than eternal
would be to say that he is
less than eternal. The eternality of the punishment is simply a realistic
assessment of the never-ending vastness of the difference between us
and God.

My point is neither to anger nor convert the re-formers of the Gospel.
Nor do I mean to incite contempt in their detractors. I only sacrificed the wordcount in order to say, first, the claim that appeasement theology is a
caricature is simply untrue. And second, I reproduced these examples to remind
myself that this is precisely what I once learned, believed and taught. Many of
my friends and colleagues never went there. But I did.
But my confession includes more than echoing aberrations of cold,
cruel theo-logic. Remember, we can also cite many ‘biblical’ objections to a non-retributive Gospel. Herein, I want
to attend to just one of them—one of my old ace-in-the-hole, deal-killer
proof-texts. Ready?
“Without the shedding of blood, there is
no forgiveness”
(Heb 9:22).
That should end the discussion. The prosecution rests, your honor.
Well it shouldn’t. But it did … for me. See, God can’t just forgive freely … that wouldn’t be ‘just.’ Sin must be paid for. How? Only by the
shedding of blood. Because why? Because a blood sacrifice is what God requires, what
God needs, what God wants … and by blood, we mean death. Death of the sinner,
or alternatively, a ram, lamb, bull … or a Son. And so we taught, “Sin cannot
simply be forgiven. It must be punished—by
blood, by death—and only through the full payment of that penalty is God be
justified in forgiving sin.”
We taught that. Yes. We did.
It’s right there in Hebrews 9.
I’m sorry I taught that.
I’m sorry I taught that the Bible teaches that.
I’m sorry I didn’t acknowledge the context … or even the whole verse.
But you know … who wants to mess with an airtight system?
But now the
Gospel—the beautiful message, the cruciform God—demands that we step back and
see the bigger picture, the agenda of Hebrews. This won’t begin to be
exhaustive, but I hope at least to point
to a couple trailheads for further study.
1. The LAW requires
The verse in question (9:22) actually says, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything
be cleansed by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no
So first, the shedding of blood is what the law requires. And
just what is the book of Hebrews about? What are these chapters about? Isn’t
the author’s argument that our new covenant in Christ is superior to the old
covenant of Moses—the Law­­—in every
way? The Law may demand one set of
things (e.g. death and condemnation – cf. 2 Cor. 3), but Christ (grace and
truth! John 1:17) delivers something
wholly other.
2. The
inauguration of two covenants
But it’s more complex than that, because chapter 9 does seem to say
draw a parallel between the temple sacrifices (of sheep and bulls) and the
heavenly sacrifice of Jesus. Doesn’t the author of Hebrews argue that just as the blood of animals was
necessary for the shadow ministry of the earthly temple, how much more the blood of Jesus was necessary for the reality of
the heavenly temple?
Not exactly. Chapter nine is not actually about forgiveness of sins
through satisfaction of wrath at all.
Rather, the chapter specifically recounts the inauguration of the two covenants. Moses’ sacrifices purified the old temple precincts to initiate the old
covenant, while Jesus’ sacrifice purified the new temple people of the new covenant. As Santo Calarco shows at length in his essay, “This verse does not speak to the issue of the forgiveness of personal sins at all.  Rather it refers to the role of blood in the inauguration of priestly ministries; earthly and heavenly.”
3. Ineffectual sacrifices 
Again, the author draws contrasts to emphasize the superiority of
Jesus’ covenant. The most obvious is that the sacrificial system of Moses’ law
was earthly, while Christ’s was heavenly (9:23-25). Moses’ sacrifices
had to be repeated in perpetuity, while Christ’s was sufficient once and for
all (9:26-10:2). And more importantly, Moses’ sacrifices didn’t even work. They
were not only repetitious; they were ineffectual.
Note this well: under the law, without the
shedding of blood, there is no
forgiveness. But also, under the law, even with the
shedding of blood, there was no
forgiveness. Try reading 9:22 and then 10:4 together out loud:
(22) The law requires that nearly
everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is
no forgiveness … (3) But … (4) it is impossible
for the blood of bulls and goats to take
away sins.
4. What is necessary versus what God requires
Now we could say (and I did) that while the rigors of the law required
animal sacrifices, God’s wrath required a perfect human sacrifice. Is that what
Hebrews is pointing out? Not exactly. Or rather, not even remotely.
First, God’s wrath is nowhere in view. Even euphemisms like ‘God’s
justice’ are completely absent in this context. This isn’t about that. At all.
Second, there is a surprising chasm between ‘what is necessary’ and
‘what God requires’ (as in needs and desires). Was the death of Christ necessary to deliver us from the one who
held us in bondage all our lives through death and the fear of death?
Absolutely. So says Hebrews 2:14-15. Christ had to die in order to enter the grave and overcome deathto emerge victorious from grave with the keys of death and hades. 

But was there anything in the character or
nature or heart of God that required a
sacrifice or payment in order to placate him … to somehow release God to forgive
sin? No. God is not enslaved by some higher goddess (Justicia or Dike) who
can prevent him from freely forgiving
… that’s the whole point of Hosea. What was necessary
for God in order to conquer death and
what we imagine God requires to
justify his own grace are entirely different questions.

5. From sacrifice to offering
Further, and more subtly, the book of Hebrews deliberately moves from
the language of ‘sacrifice’ of animals to the language of  ‘offering’ of Jesus.  This is complex and I will leave the gory
details to Michael Hardin (cf. TheJesus-Driven Life, Appendix 1 on Hebrews). The bottom line is that in
Hebrews, even at the level of word usage, whatever sacrifice is being offered,
it is first and foremost God-in-Christ’s self-offering
– not a sacrifice to God in order to
placate the angry deity, but rather a self-offering by a loving God to save an estranged people.
Certainly we can speak of the ‘sacrificial love’ of God in Christ to
speak of his lifework—surely laying down his life was exactly that. And yet
Hebrews makes a deliberate linguistic move away from the language of OT sacrifice to the language of Jesus’ offering. Why does he do this?
6. The Subversion of Sacrifice
This is where the author pulls out the stops in proclaiming a Gospel
that entirely subverts sacrifice. Hebrews does not settle for saying that Jesus
is merely the superior sacrifice or the ultimate sacrifice. He sees in Jesus’
life and death an offering that exposes and negates the corrupt foundations of sacrifice
altogether (a la René Girard).
In chapter 10, the author of Hebrews harnesses the prophetic witness of the OT to call into
question the whole sacrificial system itself. Watch this: he puts the words of the Psalmist into Christ’s own mouth,
When Christ came into the world, he
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared
for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.

Then I said, ‘Here I am … I have come to
do your will, my God.’”
So the blood of animals is not
what God wanted (in spite of what the law
demanded – vs. 8). Then what did what God want? I guess he would only be
satisfied by the more potent blood sacrifice of Jesus.
Sort of, but not exactly. Not for any retributive reasons or punitive penchants. Verse 9 continues,
“Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come
to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second.”
What God desires (not demands) is the offering of sacrificial obedience (not sacrifice for sacrifice
sake) given in self-giving love and
. This is not just the perspective of the author of Hebrews. The
author is reminding us that already in the Psalms and Prophets, there is an
ongoing, concerted anti-sacrificial critique. God doesn’t need or want animal
sacrifices—the sacrifices he wants include a broken and contrite heart, a life
of humility and obedience, and a society marked by justice and mercy. Here’s a
sample – please don’t skim this part:
16 For You do
not delight in sacrifice
, otherwise I would give it;
You are not
pleased with burnt offering
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will
not despise.
21 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt
offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. 22 For
I did not speak to your fathers,
or command them
in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices23 But
this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be
your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I
command you, that it may be well with you.’
21 “I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 “Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings
and your grain offerings,

I will not accept them;
And I will not even look

at the peace offerings
of your fatlings.
23 “Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
24 “But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
With what shall I come to the Lord
And bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings,
With yearling calves?
the Lord take delight
in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what
does the Lord require

of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
These are the desires and requirements of God. NOT the sacrifices
associated with death and violence, but the offering of a God-honoring
life.  This kind of ‘sacrifice’ was fulfilled
most perfectly in the self-offering of Christ … in his God-pleasing life-and-death martyr-witness, even in the face of a corrupt temple establishment.
7. Jesus as High Priest
This signals a crucial shift in the text. The blood sacrifice that
secures forgiveness re-emerges throughout the rest of chapter 10. But from here
on, Jesus is now seen as the High Priest who brings the sacrifice (vis-à-vis
the victim being sacrificed). Why is this?
The shift is not at all random and should not be overlooked. Christ
has given his whole life in obedience
to God—doing justice, loving mercy, proclaiming peace, enacting grace—even to
the bitter end, when religion and state do what they do: in a murderous self-preserving
plot, they choose him as their scapegoat for execution. He becomes the innocent
Lamb slain in their illegitimate and unholy sacrifice.
But what does Christ do? In obedience to and partnership with his
Father, he overthrows the wickedness of their sacrifice by offering himself as
the Father’s agent of redemption, extending forgiveness to all. Thus his blood comes to
represent the self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love of God–and not the inherent need for appeasement through violence. 
It is this blood–the gift of self-giving love–that Christ
as High Priest uses to sprinkle clean the new temple and inaugurate the new covenant.  It is with this blood—this offering of sacrificial forgiveness—that Christ our
High Priest enters the Holy of Holies and offers to God. If God is ‘satisfied,’
it is not that his wrath is placated by a sufficiently torturous death, but
rather, with the pleasure of a life that so beautifully reflected and
ministered God’s own heart.    
When the author of Hebrews says, “The law says, … without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness,” on the one hand, he’s making a remark on what has been. In this article, I’ve asked, who requires it? From whom is it required? And why? 

We’ve seen that the Psalms and the Prophets, and now the book of Hebrews seriously critiqued the Law’s claim as a wrong
perspective. St Paul goes on to call us to be “living sacrifices, holy and
pleasing to God” making our lives “spiritual acts of worship” (Romans 12:1).  

I’ve argued that Jesus’ life so fully embodied the kind of offering
God is looking for, that it ultimately led him to die as he lived—a life poured
out in self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love. This, I would add,
is what he meant by “Take up your cross and follow me.” This is what we mean when we sing, “There’s power in the blood.”

Somehow, at least
symbolically, yes, the shedding of blood is necessary
and inevitable for those who carry
that same cross and follow the Way of that same Lamb. As Brian Zahnd put it to me, “When wrong has been done and
forgiveness is a possibility, someone has to bleed and say, “I forgive.” To
follow Jesus is to forgive and bleed.

And our answer leads us to see that while God did not require or desire appeasement of his wrath, in Christ, he did
shed his own blood rather than looking for retaliation and settling the score.
This is the cruciform God who would transform us into a cruciform and
“Christo-form” people—those who emulate God’s Son in cruciform love.

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